I want to say a thing or two about conscience, in this case, my own. First, a philosophical question: is it possible to have a conscience without guilt?
Forgive me. It’s a hoary question and yes, you can comb the libraries and find thousands of answers. Richard Dawkins who is both a geneticist and an avowed atheist argues that only a kind of predatory behavior matters, that our genes are little engines designed to advantage us over others. But what to do about conscience? We evolved it of course. Our genes assert we’re better off working together.
My conscience is an evolved matter. I’ve inherited the capacity to have it.
Yet of the moral goodness or blameworthiness of one’s own conduct, intentions, or character and a feeling of obligation to do right, where does guilt come in? If I was joking I’d say “I’m asking for a friend” but it’s a serious matter. Literature is filled with characters who have no conscience and we often call this a tragic flaw.
Hamlet’s famous soliloquy reveals a man alone and who has no scruples. When he says “that is the question” it’s not the question at all. He experiences no sense of right or wrong. How did he arrive there/ How is it he has no inner life?
When I was fourteen and being bullied in school, largely owing to my blindness, (how bullies love to stomp on the disabled!) I took it into my head to bully another boy. Status is a fragile thing when you’re a teen. Having it or not depends on the temporary love of brutish schoolmates and in my case gaining it required art. I remain ashamed of the story I’m about to tell. I make no excuses. If being a blind kid in public school was rough, if I was pushed down stairs, if my glasses were stolen, if I was targeted with nicknames, well so what? I was clever and desperate.
I picked out a kid who sat next to me in math class. His name was Norman and that was bad enough. But he was also gangly, awkward, ill at ease in his skin–just like me. Talk about Carl Jung’s “shadow”–I saw in him everything I hated about myself. He wore maladjusted spectacles and had uncombable hair. There was really nothing wrong with him.
It didn’t matter. I could see he was defenseless. He stammered slightly. He was shy. He became my target.
What did I do, you ask? I made him legendary. I drew cartoons depicting him as an ostrich boy with a bird’s body, a periscope neck and a wide grinning face and I named this creature “Normanure.” I even made fun of his stammer with a cartoon bubble that said “Duh!”
Though I could scarcely see I could draw serviceably and quickly. I plastered Normanure all over the school. This ugly episode lasted about a week before a school official caught me sticking a cartoon on a bulletin board.
But here’s what I recall most vividly. Before being apprehended for assholery Norman himself accosted me and rather than punching me out he asked the most basic and fair question anyone can ask his tormentor: “Why are you doing this?”
I couldn’t answer him. I slunk away. I had no language to describe the starved mice eating my nervous system or my shame at being blind or my terror when thinking about how I might live. I was dehumanizing a perfectly good person.
That was fifty years ago. I remain sorry to this day. And the terrible ugliness of online trolling; the name-calling spurred on by so many; the sorrows of people with disabilities who are still largely unemployed and unappreciated–these are never far from my thoughts. And no, I can’t expiate my miniature “Lord of the Flies” moment with an easy post. Nor can I tell you that nowadays I’m an exemplary man.
But I do believe in emotional candor and ethics of care. I’m alarmed by all the big-bodied bullying children I see in the public square. But I’m alarmed also by the knowledge that my insecurities can produce cruelty. It is altogether proper to know what the imagination is really for.
They won’t tell you this in creative writing classes, but the arts are in no small part concerned with gaining your conscience.